11/24/2005, 00.00
SAUDI ARABIA
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Sympathy via web for Saudi teacher who "mocked" Islam

Newspapers and web sites are expressing concern about Mohammad Al-Harbi, the Muslim condemned for his moderate stand; the case has ignited a debate about the Kingdom's education and justice systems.

Ryadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Daily newspapers and online forums are harshly critical of the "unjust" sentence handed down to Mohammad Al-Harbi, the chemistry teacher in Saudi Arabia condemned to three years in jail and 750 lashes for "mocking Islam". Citizens of both sexes in the kingdom are having their say on web discussions, expressing "deep concern" not only for the teacher, but above all about the credibility and justice of the Saudi legal system.

Others among the journalists and their audiences have criticized the Education Ministry for the indifference shown this case which involves a teacher's career and also the future of Saudi students, at the mercy of teachers who sympathise with terrorists.

The teacher, denounced by colleagues and students a year and a half ago, had discussed the Bible in class and spoken highly of Jews. The victim warned, however, that the accusations against him were mounted by fundamentalist colleagues who disagreed with his views against terrorism and extermination. The Ein Al-Juwa court handed down its verdict on 12 November: 29-year-old Al-Harbi must spent 40 months in detention and endure 750 lashes inflicted over 15 weeks.

The teacher's case prompted a Saudi expatriate living in Canada to set up a web site about him. The complete story of Al-Harbi and his battle against fundamental colleagues in the region of Al-Qassim may be accessed on www.malharbi.com/en/home.html. Visitors may send comments to the website and sign an online petition, which calls on the Kingdom's authorities to intervene on the teacher's behalf.

An interesting section is that dedicated to cases similar to Al-Harbi's. The stories of Dr Hamzah Al-Muzayni and another teacher, Muhammad Al-Suhaymi, are reported. The first, an academic, was accused by one of his colleagues of of saying that the Islamic textbooks used at King Saud University were radical. His sentence of four months in prison and 275 lashes was subsequently overturned by Crown Prince -- now King -- Abdullah.

The second was accused of encouraging students to indulge in homosexual activities and adultery. In reality, the teacher had criticized traditional Saudi matrimony, when the spouses do not get to know each other before the nuptials ceremony. Al-Suhaymi was arrested in 2004 and he is serving a three-year sentence. He has also been condemned to 700 lashes.

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